Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Ambition

People often ask me, “Dave, what would you say are the biggest cultural differences between young people in the US and Europe.” Ok, only one person asked me that, and it was my mom when I saw her last weekend. But I’ll pontificate on it in my blog for you all anyway.

The first thing that shoots to mind is the level of knowledge of the world. European gen X’ers (that’s my generation right?) tend to have a much more developed knowledge of geography, politics and current affairs than their American counterparts. They also tend to have a more nuanced view on the world, seeing complexities and shades of gray where Americans, even of my generation, see black and white.

So that was the first thing that came out of my mouth when my mom asked me that question. But my second answer surprised me, because it’s something I wouldn’t have said two months ago.

“Ambition,” I said. “Honestly, I really feel like there’s a huge difference in the level of ambition.”

Let me explain. I would say about 50 percent of the people I’ve met since I got here are unemployed. No joke. And that has extended across demographics. Men, women, gays, straights, people my age seem to be unemployed more often than not. And they don’t seem to be particularly bothered by it.

Two people my age at my office have quit since I got here. You’d expect they’re leaving to go to another job right? Nope. “Oh, what are you leaving to do?” I ask. “Oh you know, I’m not sure. I’ll figure something out.” is their reply.

Similarly, I’ll meet people out at bars, or meet friends of friends, and when I ask them what they do they more often than not say they’re looking for a job. How long have they been looking? On average, I’d say 4 to 5 months.

The years from 2003 to 2006 were very bad for the white collar entry-level job market in the states, particularly in New York. But I wouldn’t say half the people I met during that time were unemployed, I’d say maybe 10 percent. And those that were either very actively looking for a job or doing something else in the mean time like temping.

How is it so many people are able to survive without a job in this incredibly expensive city? I have absolutely no idea. And Frankly, I’ve thought it would be rude to ask. Yesterday I was having brunch with my friend Francis, who is working as an unpaid (but stipended) researcher for a member of parliament. He said he would estimate the majority of his friends do not have paying jobs. I was quite shocked, but still couldn’t bring myself to ask where him and his friends were getting their money from. Parents seem like the only possible explanation.

Perhaps there is less pressure to get a job right after graduating college because college here is drastically cheaper. The average level of debt for someone leaving college here is something like $4,000, and you only have to pay it back if you're employed and making a good amount of money. Me? I’ll be paying off $120,000 for the next 30 years. So considering I pay $500 a month on my student loans whether I'm employed or not, it’s really not an option to just stop working.

But I would say it’s more than this. It’s a general attitude in Europe that’s palpably different than in the US, and that is this sense of ambition. Among my peers and cohorts my age in the US, and particularly in New York, there is this strong current of a drive to succeed. Practically everyone I know in the US assumes they’re going to be rich some day, even if few of them have an actual plan for attaining that wealth. Some are very focused on their chosen field, others are concerned about finding the right path. But everyone is intent on getting to that path, it’s considered important.

Here, there’s a completely different attitude. Your job is your job, not a way of life. People here work to live, rather than live to work. I find people seem to go on more vacations here, using every last vacation day they have, whereas most people I know in the US go on a vacation maybe once a year. People my age here seem to frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck here, even people a bit older than me in their 30’s.

I’m not saying one attitude is better than the other, they probably both have their merits. On one hand, I think Europeans tend to enjoy life more than their American counterparts, and they have an intellectual curiosity that makes them more open to learning about other cultures and ideas. They’re generally less stressed because they put less of an emphasis on constant work. On the other hand, my inner American capitalist says that any society in which young people seem to have little to no desire to work has a big problem on their hands.

I think this lack of ambition stretches into other areas as well. I have yet to meet a single European my age who seems excited about EU integration, or for that matter, excited about the future at all. And when I express my view that a united Europe could present a counterbalance to the US and China as a third superpower in the 21st century, they scoff. “Who wants to be a superpower?” they ask. “That’s very American, assuming we want to run the world. We don’t.”

And when I stress that the alternative is for the continent to fade into irrelevancy, they don’t seem bothered. So basically they complain about they way America runs the world, but don’t seem to have any faith that they would do a better job, even as just a partner.

Perhaps my assumption that you would want your country to have a strong and powerful position in the world is very American. But I honestly can’t imagine being content with the alternative.

I encounter this difference in my job as well, reporting on venture capital investment. European investors tend to be much more risk-averse and less aggressive in their investment strategies. That is slowly changing, particularly in the UK, but there just doesn’t seem to be this drive to see fantastic returns. Investors seem to be content with average returns, which I would probably be fine with too but it tends to stifle innovation in the economy.

So I don’t know who’s right. I still think Europeans need to suck it up, stop whining and work in a real way toward greater economic and foreign policy cohesion. But at the same time, I’m starting to understand that the integration needs to be approached from a different perspective than I’m used to as an American. The arguments for it need to be less ambition-based and more standards-based. Quality over quantity, you might say. So perhaps I need to start framing the argument in a different way, because right now, no one seems to be listening.

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